A couple of things to bear in mind with the ‘slacker mum’ movement

Jane Caro has just written a rather charming article, “Over-mothered? No, over mothering” for the Sydney Morning Herald.

For birthdays, I bought two packs of 12 lamington fingers and stuck a candle in each one. They served a whole class.

I was very bad at any sort of preparation. I only once helped a daughter with a project – we couldn’t find a ruler, the glue had dried up, as had the textas, and the eventual product on creased blue cardboard looked like the cat threw up on it. The only photo we could dredge up of a marine creature was of brain coral. ”That’ll have to do!” I screeched at her. I think she’d had fantasies of whales, dolphins or seahorses. I went into the classroom a few days later only to see it displayed on the wall alongside other pristine, laminated dissertations on more glamorous sea creatures. Surprised to see it so honoured, I asked the teacher why it took pride of place. ”Ah,” she said, ”because she so obviously did it all by herself.” Once again, sheer incompetence came up trumps.

When it came time for the weekly swimming lessons, I invariably realised I hadn’t unpacked the cossie from last time. ”Oh well,” I reasoned as I forced them to don their damp, mouldy, smelly togs, ”they’re only going to get wet again anyway.”

There’s a lot I love about this piece but it reminds me that I am also a little skeptical of this stuff. I’m a big fan of slacker mums and relate to much of what the movement is expressing about unrealistic standards in mothering. But I want to raise a couple of cautions here given such confessions are becoming big in the media at the moment. Firstly, there’s a lot of in-built classism in slacker mothering, as I noted way back in 2008 when I first wrote about the ‘slacker mothers/mothers who drink’ phenomenon.

Almost certainly, a mother from a low socio-economic group wouldn’t get away with a book of this kind of humour, she’d risk being seen as neglectful rather than endearingly chaotic – imagine if the mothers in that New York Times article were drinking bourbon and cokes instead of Cavit pinot grigio, would this be seen as the emergence of a trend in sophisticated motherhood?

And as I also observed back then in 2008, the slacker mum movement often neglects to directly acknowledge the debt it owes feminism. It’s frequently liberation without the radicalism. This means the discussion can lack perspective and a sense of purpose. And that becomes particularly apparent when you read supposedly confessional pieces that are pulling their punches, something I refer to in this article of mine at Daily Life. If your ‘revealing truths’ reinforce how much you belong to the most powerful income/class groups of mothers then while you’re taking a risk in revealing them it’s not a particularly big one, and you’re probably not liberating a genuinely marginalised mother, such as a teenage mother, or a mother with a drug addiction, or a mother in poverty who wouldn’t get away with that same slackness without facing the threat of more serious repercussions.

Finally, the slacker mother movement seems to be taking a nasty turn lately towards judging mothers it sees as being too dedicated to the pursuit of motherhood. This begs the question what business is it of yours how another mother does her care work, because it’s inherently sexist that we routinely consider women’s lives our business and that we also have so many ways to criticise women? Also, are you sure she isn’t the oppressed minority, rather than you? In which case, step off her neck you big bully, she’s got enough on her plate. Lauren Rosewarne’s piece for The Drum was a classic example of this problem, in my opinion, as was Mia Freedman’s piece about birth activists, which I tackled in this article of mine at Essential Baby. Even Caro’s piece, which is notably about “over-mothering,” pictures ‘intervention-free birthers’ as some dominating group of mothers that she is bravely breaking free of when, actually, having a medicalised birth is hardly taking the path of most resistance in Australia. (I should probably disclose here that I have a foot in both camps having chosen a birth centre ‘intervention-free’ birth for my first baby and a hospital birth with an epidural for my second baby).

If you actively engage with the feminist parenting community then you’ll find that breast-feeders, baby-wearers, home-birthers and even, the organic food types aren’t all the stereotypes you believe them to be. I’ve found many of these mothers have the more radical feminism of parents in the feminist community. And they are often political and quick to defend marginalised mothers, too. Maybe this is because I’ve found that quite a number of them are also, themselves, black or single or disabled or very young or a multitude of other identities that lead them to be marginalised. Mothers are rarely simple stereotypes. If slacker mothering is about liberating mothers then it’s important that it actually does.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: gender & feminism, media, parenting, social justice

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9 replies

  1. Seriously good post Bluemilk. I’m a free range parent, but my kids have an invisible knapsack of university educated, maths loving, book reading, articulate relatives.

  2. I aspired to be one of those ‘benign neglect’ parents but I couldn’t manage it in practice. Although upon reflection those adults who talk about that sort of parenting seem to have had large country houses and estates to wander around in and artistic parents so there is a fair whack of class and privilege right there.

  3. Mandy, I was a ‘benign neglect mother, and I can assure you there were no country estates or acres of land! A run of suburban houses, not even quarter-acre blocks, with a bit of lawn and sometimes a veggie patch. I’m not in the least bit artistic! Funnily, my daughter is a very strict mother who home schools, and she has a tiny house on an acre of land. Make of that what you will.

  4. I suppose my question is basically, where does “slack” stop, and “neglect” begin? Who decides this?
    (I say this as someone who was raised by emotionally neglectful parents who had been raised in their turn by emotionally neglectful parents, who had also been raised in emotionally neglectful circumstances… At some point, someone has to step up and say “enough of handing on the misery to the subsequent generation”).
    Kids don’t choose to be born. They don’t choose to come into the world. Kids shouldn’t be put into a position where they’d want to be able to make the choice in the negative for their parents.

  5. I’m something of a ‘good enough parenting’ mother myself, and a lot of my writing about my experiences is in that tone so I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water in this area.. but I wanted to highlight issues that are often not being considered in this approach. And also, to tackle what I see as a rapid increase in judgmentalism in the writing. Why is so much of this writing supposedly reaching out to mothers and yet feeling very critical of particular mothers among us?

  6. I was never so much a ‘good enough’ or ‘slacker’ mum – more of a ‘never wanted children but succumbed to spousal and societal pressure’ mum.
    My kids are now grown and left the nest and never a day goes by that I don’t pinch myself that it’s all over. Sure there were some nice moments in being a mother, and they turned out nice kids, but for me at least, the bad aspects of motherhood well and truly outweighed the good.

  7. I think the real issue is maternal anxiety and confidence. I was besieged by anxiety as a first time mum, and desperately sought reassurance from anyone, anywhere, to tell me I was doing OK, no, not like that, like this, NO, not like that… To get to the point where I can joke with my friends that I am a paid up member of the Bad Mother Club and a keen follower of N.I.P. (non-intervention parenting – no blood, no intervention…) has not been due to ideological research but to confidence. They’re my kids. They’re alright. They’ll do.

  8. Thank you Bluemilk. Low-socio economic mum drinking bourbon & coke could be labelled as “at risk” and a ‘bogan’ or just a bad mum. Middle-class and higher up the socio-economic ladder and if your drink a class of champagne whilst “juggling it all” then that’s OK.
    I’m thinking about how Mums with loads of cultural capital (and money) want to relate to being a ‘normal’ mum. Battling with all the struggles that ‘we all’ go through.
    I’m thinking about how they tell us how they connect with the ‘average’ mum. Just have a look at Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop site. Tips on how to cook, parent and be an all round great mother. How about closer to home. Now this could be touchy. I love Lisa Wilkinson, Tara Moss, Mia Freedman and the like. But whilst they are doing it tough by juggling their work and family life comittments how many of us have access to a cleaner, baby-sitter, travel and holidays and the kinds of designer clothing that they can choose to have at any time. Do they really think they have anything in common with a mum doing it tough from the western suburbs or are they just capitalising on their celebrity by wanting to be perceived as just ‘a normal gal’ who has worked hard to get where they are?. Let’s just say that for me the gap is getting bigger and bigger.

  9. I was very saddened by the birthing choice that’s normal being painted as a liberation from that nasty pack of activists who just want women to feel bad. And I’m a mother they lurve to hate on by name over there. But mostly I’m piling on here to say, yes, that, I agree. And this is what I wrote in response to all the Birth Horror on the Freedman et al site.
    And on the hating they pile on me.

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